This blog on laughter first appeared on Jennifer Thayer Knight's website. We met earlier this year through the Flourish Writer's Retreat and swapped stories. (You really must link to her site for the rest, because she has a picture of the cutest kids ever laughing that will make your heart happy. :) May this blog encourage you to take a load off and laugh a little.
Looking for Laughter
I went to a picnic with families from my church. The children ran around the grass, laughing and giggling to themselves. Their happiness was contagious and soon the adults joined in with hearty ha-has.
One of my friends at the picnic is a kindergarten teacher. She noted her students laughed throughout the school day. It took the tiniest thing to amuse them. The kids would make funny eyes at each other and clamor to hear the same knock-knock joke over and over, which they found hilarious every time. She already kept an eye out for beauty, but realized she needed to attune her life to joy and especially laughter.
Recently, I posted a guest blog about God's Word on my friend Nancy Lee's website www.inspirationallee.com. We met through the online Flourish Writer's conference and swapped stories. The following is an excerpt of the full article. Hit the button with a link to her site to read the rest. I've found that meditating on God's Word, especially in several versions, gives me deeper insight into the truths God is showing me through Scripture. May this bless and encourage you.
Peace from Meditating on God's Word
My heart was weak and weary as circumstances jumbled one problem on top of another. My boyfriend had broken up with me the week of Valentine’s Day. Two weeks later I started having problems with my boss. Then COVID-19 swooped in, and the world shutdown. At the beginning, some days I barely slept or ate. My body was in shock, and I started to harden my emotions. I needed God’s truths to pump new life into my frail heart.
One night, I talked on the phone with my friend Vivian for hours. She listened to me sputter and then encouraged me straight from God’s Word. I explained to her that the line between myself and God was paper thin. Few times in my life have I heard the Lord as clearly and often as I did that in that month of misery. God kept telling me that He loved me and to trust Him. I marveled at how close God felt. She said, “Of course! The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18). I got shivers. My heart was shattered, but the gift I received was an intimate connection to the Lord that I’d only found through abject pain. I had no hope apart from the Lord. I choose to embrace truth, even when all my eyes saw was heartache.
This week I share a guest blog from a new friend I met through the Flourish Writer's Conference Nancy Lee. She loves to share inspirational stories from people who have overcome difficult circumstances on her blog Inspirational Lee. I was blessed by her beautiful story where she shares about how focusing on lovely flowers during hard times encouraged her soul.
A Ministry of Flowers
By Nancy Lee
“Finally, brothers, . . . whatever is lovely, . . . if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8 ESV).
I didn’t realize until the last flower had shriveled, and the vase was put away how the lovely flowers surrounding my mother were encouraging her and lifting her spirits during the most challenging season of her life.
When my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer, we gave up our hopes of celebrating her 90th birthday. Her doctor told me she probably wouldn’t make it to Thanksgiving, let alone her birthday the following July.
But God had different plans. Ten and a half months after the diagnosis that had threatened to take her life in a few weeks, Mom made it to the 90-year milestone. Mom was in the later stages of cancer by then, so we kept the celebration simple – a special meal and cake with three daughters, a son, and a son-in-law. And lots of cards and flowers.
Her small apartment was filled with flowers she had received as gifts. Lavender roses, red carnations, blue hydrangeas, and pink Peruvian lilies set in vases on the table in front of the recliner where she spent her days. More flowers covered her kitchen counter.
The flowers lasted for weeks, but little by little, they began to wither and die. When I would come in to care for her during the day, I would weed out the dying ones and rearrange what was left. Finally, she was left with one bouquet, and eventually, with one flower which finally succumbed.
On the day the last flower died, she looked at me with innocent eyes and said, “Where are all my flowers?”
My mother would never have asked for anything for herself, but the cancer had affected her short-term memory, and she had lost the usual filters we have as adults. This is when I realized how much the beauty of the flowers were ministering to her.
There was no explanation I could give her that she would understand or remember, so I went out and bought a bouquet of flowers which I placed on the table in front of her. She responded with a smile. I made sure that she had flowers within her view until the day she passed away weeks later.
Then it was my turn. As I walked to the front of the church at my mother’s funeral, I froze when I realized that I would have to stand next to her casket to give her eulogy. Then I focused on the flowers. The lovely shades of white, pink, and purple blossoms were certainly arrayed more beautifully than “ . . . Solomon in all his glory . . . “ (Matthew 6:29 ESV). Their beauty gave me peace and calmed my spirit.
As I was leaving the catered picnic we had after the funeral, my sister called to me, “Uncle Dub texted me and wanted to make sure someone takes home the arrangement he sent.”
“I left it at the cemetery,” I said, “but I’ll pick it up on the way home. Tell him it is going home with me.”
I stopped at the cemetery and picked up my uncle’s arrangement and another one we had purchased from a florist. I glanced back as I left, pleased at how her grave looked with the spray of flowers that had been on her casket. When I got home, I breathed in the sweet scents of the delicate flowers and gazed at their beauty. I was so thankful for the nudge from my uncle to bring the flowers home.
I spread the flowers out on my dining room table and pulled each stem out of the green floral foam, then I arranged them into separate bouquets and put them in vases. I added the big purple ribbons from the florist to the largest bouquet and placed it on the table in my front entry way. The smaller bouquets I brought back to my mother’s apartment building to give out to her friends.
The days following the funeral were stressful. We had a short period of time to clear out her apartment, so several of us were coming and going, sorting and dividing her treasures, making trips to the thrift store and post office, and filling garbage bags. They were long demanding days, but I would go home each night and be blessed by the beauty and aroma of the flowers that greeted me as I walked in the door.
Finally, we were done with the clean out, and I looked at the few wilted flowers left from my beautiful bouquet. I felt like my mother had when her flowers were gone. “Where are my flowers?” I thought, “I’m still grieving; I’m not ready to be done with them.” So, I went out and bought myself a big bouquet of flowers. I kept a bouquet of fresh flowers on my table all through the winter and into the Spring. And I found many occasions to bless others with flowers as well.
It wasn't until this experience that I realized how focusing on “whatever is lovely,” in this case, in the form of flowers, truly ministers to one’s soul.
As we are now in the season when flowers are blooming all around us, take the time to observe the delicate, fragrant blossoms, and let God minister to you through his lovely creation.
Nancy Lee is a former Christian school teacher and Recreation Therapist/Activities Director. She lives in a small town in the Mohawk Valley in Upstate New York, an area rich in history and natural beauty.
Nancy and her husband, Paul, are the parents of four young adults and a son-in-law. All four of them, and their peers, inspire and challenge her. They are bright, creative, innovative thinkers, driven, and out to change the world. She loves to hike, explore, and to walk her three small, mixed-breed dogs. She also loves to spend time with her family, read, and write. Connect with her at her website: Inspirational Lee.
Access to the Bible is so prevalent in America, why should anyone memorize verses? The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. We can find it in any local book store, hotel, or hospital room. One can even read the Bible online and cross-reference against at least a dozen versions to understand the Scripture better. Our Constitution upholds a freedom of religion so believers can go to church and hear the truth.
Not all countries have ready access to the Word of God. In his book “The Heavenly Man,” Brother Yun describes how when he read the book of Matthew, he memorized the whole thing and later shared it with his family and neighbors. In China, they didn’t have Bibles lying around to read at one’s leisure.
During the Soviet Union, a group of young adults met in secret in Moscow to see how much of the Bible they could reconstruct from what they had memorized. In the course of the week, they wrote down the four gospels, much of the Psalms, and many hymns.
How could these young people memorize whole books of the Bible? One verse at a time.
The key to learning anything is starting small. I love God’s Word, but am nowhere near able to recite an entire gospel like these people in closed countries. I spent one year memorizing the book of Philippians, but it took the entire year. Learning God’s Word takes effort, but the time invested will yield eternal rewards. Here are a few reasons we should learn Scriptures:
Love for God
If someone you loved wrote you a letter, wouldn’t you read it? And if it included encouraging words, maybe you would even repeat those words to yourself. When I love God, I will not only want to read His Word, but commit it to memory.
Desire for Obedience
Since God’s love language is obedience (John 14:15), if I want to obey God, I need to know the Word. Psalm 119:11 says, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.” The Holy Spirit uses each verse I treasure to help me not to succumb to temptation.
Memorized verses are strong weapons in my spiritual arsenal to undermine the attacks of the enemy. First Corinthians 10:13 that says, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” God won’t tempt me, instead He will create a way for me to escape if I look for the exit ramp.
An example would be when I want to snap at someone irritating. The Holy Spirit reminds me of Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (NKJV). I have a choice in how I respond. I can answer with soft words or makes things worse by countering with frustration. Thinking about the verse slows my reaction time and helps me respond with kindness that dissipates tense moments. All because I knew the verse.
Importance of Learning the Whole Verse
One problem I face is memorizing Scripture references. In writing this blog, I forgot that the verse I just used was found in Proverbs 15:1. Fortunately, I used a concordance, but that is not always an option. Once while doing missions overseas, I tried to find a Bible verse for someone in a foreign language. I couldn’t whip out my Russian concordance because I didn’t have one. I missed the chance to share the gospel to an interested soul because I focused on memorizing just the words in the verse. Knowing where the passage is from is just as important.
Now that we’ve discussed some of the benefits of committing God’s Word to heart, will you join me in memorizing Scripture? On my social media, I used to post a verse of the day. The Lord placed on my heart a desire to share a memory verse of the week. I write the same verse every day for a week so that repeated exposure helps the truth stick in people’s minds. Here’s this week’s memory verse:
Proverbs 3:3, “Let not mercy and truth forsake you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart.”
Proverbs 3:3 admonishes us to tie mercy and truth around our necks and write them on my hearts, wearing them wherever we go. When we keep God’s truth nearby, we won’t rush into sin from deceit because truth outshines the lies. Mercy will catch us if we fall and usher us back into the light of the Lord.
Each post includes short notes of commentary or memorization tips. If you are like me, especially since the invention of smart phones, I find it tough to remember anything. Here are a few ways I memorize Bible verses that may help you.
Scripture Memory Tips:
Even if you don’t want to learn the same verse that God leads me to share on a given week, you can find another one that closer matches your needs. May we exercise our rights to learn as many verses as possible. Knowing God’s Word will never hurt and will only bless your heart as it fills with rich truth.
Today I welcome guest blogger Stephanie Pavlantos to share with us about her Bible study “Jewels of Hebrews.” I met Stephanie through my Blue Ridge Bible Study Facebook group. Though we’ve not met in person, I’ve always enjoyed her blogs and been blessed by her as a friend on the writing journey. May you be dazzled by the riches of God’s Word in the book of Hebrews as Stephanie examines not only the verses, but the Jewish culture and Hebrew language to illuminate truths.
Jewels of Hebrews
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Matthew 13:44, ESV
I’m a scientist and a researcher. I worked in cancer and AIDS research, and later I worked as a histotechnologist in a hospital pathology lab. Researching comes naturally to me, as does teaching.
Teaching is my first love. I taught biology, chemistry, and anatomy in homeschool co-ops, and the Lord called me to teach Bible studies over twenty years ago. Researching the biblical languages, culture, and history excite me.
So, when the Lord put a man who spoke and taught Hebrew in my life, I had to know more. The little he shared with my husband and me intrigued me. I began researching everything I could find about Messianic beliefs, the Hebrew alphabet, the culture, and the Feasts.
I saw things I had never seen in Scripture through reading rabbis and rabbinical/ Messianic books.
When the Lord led me to write a Bible study on the book of Hebrews, I loved the Hebrew-ness of it. I appreciated the first four verses of chapter one and how the author described Jesus, or Yeshua. I knew I would have to use the name Yeshua because I saw His Jewishness in this book, and I was eager to show others.
After writing the first six chapters, the Lord gave me a theme: Jewels.
I found a website on the biblical meaning of the different colors of gemstones. Amazingly, of course, there was a color that fit each of the chapters already written. It came together like Someone had already planned it.
One thing that floored me about the Hebrew letters is how different they are from our alphabet. We have the letter “b,” but Hebrew has the letter bet. Their letters are words, and those words have meaning. Bet means house or tent.
We write the word manna with the letters mem and nun or מך (reading right to left). Mem can mean water or something that comes down from heaven, and nun means life (and can mean fish).
John 6:32-33 says, “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’” (ESV)
In this verse, Jesus gives the meaning of the true bread, which is the one who comes down from Heaven to give life. That is the definition of manna.
The Gospels are full of Hebrew idioms and proverbs that Jesus referenced when he spoke.
In Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (ESV)
A Hebrew saying is, “Give with a good eye” or give generously. A bad eye is a selfish person.
That’s why Matthew 6:24 says,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
You will find these and other gems like them in Jewels of Hebrews.
To introduce each chapter, I tell a story of a famous gem or piece of jewelry. I base each chapter on a specific stone like the amethyst, ruby, emerald, topaz, pink diamond, or other colored precious gem. Each color stands for a characteristic of Jesus, i.e. ruby stands for blood, salvation, redemption, or sacrifice.
Your job as you read and work through that chapter of Hebrews is to find the verses which deal with the characteristics that match the gems. All the while you are learning about the Old and New Testament, Hebrew language, culture, and the Jewishness of Jesus.
In this study, you will see Jesus as the High Priest, Savior, and Jewish rabbi He was and still is.
Jewels of Hebrews is an expositional thirteen-week study for individual or group study. Within the study there is teaching, fill-in-the-blank, and reflection.
Back cover copy: You are a treasure hunter on a mission to find hidden jewels. Your guide Stephanie Pavlantos has gone before you and now joins you on an expedition to unearth a hidden gem from each chapter of Hebrews. When you open your beloved Bible and dive deep into the book, you will find a rare diamond, ruby, sapphire, and other gems. You will explore the rich history of the early church and the connections the book of Hebrews has to the Old Testament. The supremacy of Yeshua and his royalty will be revealed as the Jewels of Hebrews are discovered one chapter at a time. Learn about these jewels and the meaning of their color as you find relatable and practical applications for modern times. Get ready for a life-changing journey! Yeshua is eager to reveal the Jewels of Hebrews to you and crown you his prince or princess.
Stephanie Pavlantos is passionate about getting people into God’s Word. She has taught Bible studies for fifteen years and has spoken at ladies’ retreats.
She is ordained with Messenger Fellowship in Nashville, TN. Stephanie works for Besorah Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies in the Student Services department as well as teaching online classes.
She is published in Refresh Bible study magazine, Charisma magazine, and CBN.com. She is also a contributor to www.VineWords.net, Feed Your Soul with the Word of God compilation by Lighthousebiblestudies.com, and Love Knots compilation by VineWords Publishing.
You can visit her blog at www.stephaniepavlantos.com and other social media sites at twitter @DPavlantos and www.facebook.com/stephaniepavlantos.
Her Bible study, Jewels of Hebrews, won a third place at Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference (2018), an Honorable Mention at the Florida Christian Writers Conference (2019) and is a finalist in the Selah Awards at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference (2021).
Married for twenty-nine years, she and Mike have three children, Matthew, Alexandria, and Michael. Stephanie loves animals and has dogs, ducks, sheep, and chickens.
This week's guest blog is by Jennifer Thayer Knight. We both recently attended the Flourish Writer's Retreat online and connected virtually. We share a desire to encourage believers as they deepen their relationships with Christ. I pray her words bless you.
Spring Is In The Air
Jennifer Thayer Knight
As I sit on my porch on this early spring day in Montana, I am delighted at the sound of fluttering wings as the birds play in the bushes beside me. Their warbling is a welcome addition, as you do not hear it for months. The snow has cleared in the valley, at least for today, and the grass is turning its lovely shade of green. The sun’s rays warm my skin, and I am captured by the beauty of the snow-capped mountains that surround me. Spring is in the air.
In Montana, we experience three to five springs, a brief summer, and then four to six autumns. The winter fights for its place and often wins. Most of the time, spring starts in May and comes and goes through June, but this year was a surprise. Spring started in late March.
Each season brings its own treasures, but spring offers hope for new beginnings. The trees and bushes bud, bunnies hop around the yard, and everything becomes alive. Do you ever desire an awakening in your spirit?
For I Am About To Do Something New
During hard seasons of life, I long for a fresh start. Challenges get overwhelming and I believe I cannot handle one more thing thrown my way. I wait for God to present me with something new.
Isaiah 43:19 says, “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland” (NLT).
Does this verse spark a sense of hope within you? It does for me. When Isaiah penned God’s words, the Israelite people were in captivity in Babylon. He prayed for freedom, and to return to the promised land. God answered by saying He was already working and asked, “Do you not see it?”
God is always working in our lives, even when we cannot see it. He is moving and making a way for you and me. This is where faith must come in. Faith is having complete trust in what we cannot see. We have to believe God has our best interest at heart, because He does. Sometimes we feel like Job, stuck in the mud and the mire, but know God is working behind the scenes. He did not promise life with Him would be easy, but He promised that He would be by our side the entire time.
God asked, “Do you not see it?” It makes me ponder the things I miss that He wants me to see. I have started studying the Hebrew alphabet and the meanings behind each letter. The letter ך, known as the Daleth, has multiple definitions, but one meaning it represents is a door into the spiritual world.
Chaim Bentorah in his book, “Hebrew Word Study, Beyond The Lexicon,” says, “We are often so hurried in our lives and so focused on the material that we miss out on the many ordinary doorways to the spiritual world which offer us a knowledge of God. We can interpret a little bird dancing and singing on our porch as a distraction which may leave a mess that we must clean up, or we can pause and pass through the Daleth and realize that here is a small part of the creation of God presenting to us beauty, peace, and serenity. We must pause in our busy lives to anticipate the little Daleths, or doorways, that God will open to share with us the things of the spirit, fill what is lacking or deficient in the physical world, to take the poverty of this physical world and fill it with the blessings of God’s spirit.”
Don’t Miss The Miracles
Most of us do not want to miss these miracles in our daily lives. I have attempted to slow down and observe what God has placed around me. I prayed for God to not let me miss what He is doing so that it will grow my faith to sustain me through the hard times. Please join me in this and ask God to not let you miss what He is doing, even amid trouble.
God also reminds us in Isaiah 43:19 that He will make a way. He will provide rivers in the desert wasteland. When we come to the Father asking for Him to get us through, or out of, the trials, sometimes it is an immediate change. Yet, more often than not, it is a process. He will lead you out, but you must walk through the desert to get there. He assures you that He will provide for you every step of the way.
Matthew Henry says in his commentary, “He promises not only to deliver them out of Babylon, but to conduct them safely and comfortably to their own land… the same power that made a way in the sea (parting of the red sea) can make a way in the wilderness. And He can produce waters in the driest land, in such abundance as not only to give drink to His people, His chosen, but to the beasts of the field, also the dragons and the ostriches, who are therefore said to honor God for it.”
I want to finish with words to encourage you. No matter where you are in your walk with God, maybe you're on the mountaintop, or maybe you're in the valley: stop, breathe, and look around. Watch for opportunities for the Lord to speak, to draw you closer, offer you peace and allow Him to show you what He is doing in your life. The place you are in may be hard, but it will be for His glory to shine.
Jennifer Thayer Knight, aka Jen, grew up in Orange, Texas, a small town bordering Louisiana. As a relatively new Christian, Jen met and married Sam, thereby entering the whirlwind of being a pastor’s wife. Now more than two decades later, they have served at four churches, lived in three states, and had three amazing children, plus too many pets to count.
In 2017, Jen began her battle with Lyme disease. This illness inspires creativity in her writing, new ways to serve God, and innovative discipleship methods. Jen seeks to share her experiences to draw others into a deeper, experiential relationship with Christ.
When she is not writing, Jen loves knitting, reading, and spending time with her family, her dogs and her horse. Discover more about Jennifer Thayer Knight at her website: http://jenniferthayerknight.com/
My pastor’s wife sent the song “The Blessing” by Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes as part of a set of worship songs on YouTube when my church started meeting online on March 22, 2020. Even though we couldn’t be together, we could still praise God from our couches. Click here for the link.
The song lyrics comes from one of the most famous Biblical blessings where the Lord gives instructions on how to bless the children of Israel in Numbers 6:22-26 (NIV):
“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”
Blessings infuse life from our Heavenly Father into people. We pour God’s blessings, protection, and grace on their comings and goings. When Moses spoke to God, he hid his face under a bag because it shone from reflecting God’s glory. When we bless someone, we radiate God’s glory to brighten their day and surround them with peace.
The song “The Blessing” came at a crucial time in world history as the pandemic progressed and people around the globe stayed inside to quarantine. People all over spliced together versions of the song on YouTube to bless whole countries, including the UK, South Africa, Australia, etc. At a time when the world was sick, singing the blessings over countries pushed healing and life into the heavens. Our world needed all the hope it could get to combat the curse of COVID.
Blessings are the opposite of curses. In Deuteronomy chapters 27-28, a series of blessings and curses are laid out before the Israelites. God explains that if the people obeyed God’s laws, they would be blessed in their houses, in their fields, in their families, and with their friends. On the other hand, if the people turned from God, curses would cover every area of their lives. All they sought to accomplish would fail. The section culminates with Deuteronomy 30:19, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (NKJV).
When we bless people, we choose life over death. We bring God’s goodness down from heaven into earth. I’ve started to speak different blessings from the Bible and claim them for my friends and family. Instead of fighting my spiritual battles from a defensive position, when I bless, I go on the offense. Sending God’s grace and truth into the atmosphere changes the heavens around us and creates a place where Satan cannot operate. The impact on those we love is tremendous.
Not only are we to bless our friends and families, we are also to bless those who curse us. Luke 6:27-28 says, “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you” (NKJV). Loving our enemies is hard. Who wants to bless when they’ve been cursed? Only God can enable His people to love that way. We can bless others because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8).
My friend’s colleague made her life difficult. He either refused to work, or created chaos when he contributed. She wanted to pull her hair out. The Holy Spirit convicted her after she noticed her snippy retorts. She confessed her sin and started to bless the man. The Lord heard those prayers. Her colleague was promoted and moved off the project. That left his spot open for her to recommend a friend for the position. Blessing her enemy paved the way to peace in her workplace.
Blessings are not a name it and claim it theology. You don’t say “I bless you with new shoes,” and they fall out of the sky. Blessing people speaks the good for them that God has already promised in His Word. They create space in the atmosphere for showers of blessings to fall on us as we walk in obedience to God. Sometimes our blessings may seem disguised if they don’t come packaged as we expected. Knowing God sees the end game prepares our hearts to receive blessings in any form.
I want to bless you as the readers of this blog. May the Lord’s favor be upon you, your friends, your families, your enemies, and your generations to come. May the light of God’s countenance shine upon you and fill your heart. May your sitting up and lying down be sheltered under the shadow of God’s wings. May you harness the power of blessings to speak truth to bring life to the world around you. In Jesus’s Name, Amen.
This week's blog is by my good friend Ed Windhausen from my Word Weaver's group. I am thankful to walk alongside him in his writing journey and share this story from his mission trip to Zambia. His words are so vivid and compelling that I experience his emotions as I read. May his story bless you too!
A Heart of Flesh
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
I thought you couldn’t die in your dreams. I had heard it said that if you did, you would die in real life. I am grateful that turned out to be false. It was the summer of 2008, and I found myself in a most unlikely place. I was on a mission trip in the bush of Zambia, Africa. That’s actually not that surprising, since I had taken the same trip the previous year. What was different this year was the work I was doing.
I had never really contemplated what it might be like to be on a chain gang in the 1920’s, but that year in Africa I found out. We were tasked with digging something called barache (bah-rah-sh). Imagine an iron rich soil that has fossilized and turned into a large vein of super hard concrete like stone. That’s barache. It’s hard and unforgiving, and our host missionaries needed us to dig up this stone and crush it into smaller pieces to create a gravel-like packable substrate for the floor of the orphanage we were helping to build. The problem was that this barache was very comfortable where it was and did not want to be disturbed. We used picks, shovels, and six-foot steel pry bars to try and coax it loose. The work was so tough that I actually wore down about two inches of the pick I was using that week. I burned myself on its tip once from the heat that had built up from the repetitive friction producing contact with the barache. It was hard work.
There were times when we would fall into this almost sleepy rhythm of lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. For a guy like me who wasn’t used to manual labor, I had to dig deep into myself to find the will to continue each hour. I had to ignore the blisters that formed, popped, and bled each day. I had to set aside my own comfort for the greater cause of the work that was being accomplished. That work was for God and His children. Wasn’t that the reason we had come to this place, to serve the Lord?
Maybe it was because I was so tired. Maybe it was because I was raw from sleeping in a tent in the bush of Africa. Likely, it was because I was focusing on Him in the midst of my suffering. Whatever the reason, the Lord chose this moment to remind of a gift He had given me four years earlier. A gift I had never acknowledged, or had chosen to push back into the recesses of my memory for some purpose not known to me on a conscious level.
My work partner Tom and I had been at it all morning, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. It was close to lunchtime, and we had been having a conversation about our testimonies. I was sharing with him my agnostic struggles prior to accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, relaying to him I could now see how God had been at work in many of the circumstances of that journey. He had placed people in my path that had been essential in my slow, methodical approach to faith. Over and over again He had given me the opportunities to see Him for who He truly was, love.
I will admit to being tired, we all were. But, it was more than a physical release that was about to occur. It was the realization that something pivotal had happened in my life, and I had ignored it. It was like someone pulling you to safety after a bad motor vehicle accident. Watching as the car explodes, feeling the heat, and then turning around and discovering that the person has disappeared into the crowd before you could thank them for saving your life. It was a feeling of unresolved gratitude that constantly nags at you, never letting you fully relax.
I don’t recall what triggered the memory, but I do remember that Tom was expressing how grateful he felt to have eternal salvation. I could feel the authenticity of his words, like a mist settling on my warm skin, soothing and cooling in the hot African sun. It was then that I shared with him this vision or dream I had four years prior. It was unlike any dream I had ever had. It was more thought than visual or auditory. There was no recognition of images, or discernment of sound, but there was awareness unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could feel what was happening. But, it was actually more than a feeling; it was a confident recognition of truth.
I was dead. There was no tunnel of light, no swirling colors, nothing from my memory of how death has been described by those who have claimed to return from that experience. I was just dead. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t even confused. While I had no explanation for my demise, I was at peace. It was as if I had been holding my breath forever and was finally able to exhale, but then take in a deep breath of air so sweet, so fragrant and warm, it pulled me close and soothed me from within. There was recognition in that breath that I never had to worry again, and all the anxieties I’d had in my life had been pointless. This was how it was supposed to be. This was the real life.
Tom was intrigued. He asked me what might have been going on in my life at that time. At that moment, I made the connection. I shared that the dream had come when I had finally surrendered to God and let Him into my heart. I had decided to stop fighting, stop looking for proof, stop feeling like I had to explain everything before I could be a true believer. I was tired. I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I submitted myself to His will. I stopped being hard like stone, and I softened.
This may sound theatrical, but I fell to my knees right there at the edge of that small barache pit under a grove of mwaponi trees in the Mukamba region of Zambia, and I cried. Tom became a blur through my tear soaked eyes, but I could see him smiling. He knew something powerful had just happened. It was the recognition that my heart had been transformed from something as hard as the barache we were digging, into a heart of flesh, a heart that was softened for the purposes of the Lord. I felt Tom’s hand on my shoulder, but he said nothing. There was nothing to say. I stood up, wiped my eyes, and grabbed my pick, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang.
Life in Latvia was dark. Very dark. They count hours of sunlight per year. Yes, hours, not days of sunlight. It averaged to about 30 sunny days each year. While I lived there teaching seventh and eighth grade third-culture kids, we managed not to have sunshine for five months straight over the winter. Being from Florida, the sunshine state, I got really depressed. SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder—is real.
I sought ways to brighten the dark days. People had told me about buying a “happy lamp” that emits the same rays as natural sunlight. I wish I had taken their advice. One thing that did help was dying my hair bright red. The color added pep to my locks as it matched my coat and hat.
In late February, we finally saw the sun again. The temperature was -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) so I wore four layers of clothes. I waddled around like the stay-puff marsh mellow woman. I'm glad I braved the cold. My face lit with joy while playing in the sunshine and soaking in vitamin D. Still, I wondered if my work was worth all the struggle.
One day when I’d hit a real low, a lady from my church back home sent me an email. She started the note with Philippians 1:3-6, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
She explained how God had prompted her to write me to encourage me that He would finish what He’d started. The Lord hadn’t sent me to Latvia to freeze to death and languish in depression, but to use me for His kingdom purposes and glory. My main interactions were teaching American children, not the locals. Yet, my work with those kids enabled their parents to build language skills and a ministry. Also, third-culture kids have a unique problem set to straddle two countries and function as a subset of both. Their education was important for the people they would become.
Satan tries to make us doubt our calling or diminish its importance. Every role God calls us to is significant for building His kingdom. When we surrender our works to the Lord, He creates amazing results that far exceed what we can imagine. Often, I don’t see the fruit of my labor, which I think is to prevent me from swelling with pride. God deserves the glory, not my ego. Life eventually did get brighter, and the Lord brought me through to the spring. Hope and happiness sprouted in my heart and mind once more.
I let the lady from my church know how much her email encouraged me. To her, it was something little, but to me it was monumental. Her note reminded me that as long as I obeyed God, my work, no matter how menial, brought God glory. I needed that light to keep walking through the dark until the dawn appeared. The Lord's work is always worth whatever night we face because His joy comes in the morning.
This week I had the privilege to guest blog on the Word Weaver's website as part of their Valentine's Day series. Below is an excerpt with a link to the full blog.
Every year for a decade I left town on President’s Day weekend in mid-February. My excuse to colleagues was a chance to visit warmer places. In reality, I was escaping Valentine’s Day. As a single woman, that holiday is one of the most painful days of the year. My solution of traveling with a friend always let me feel special on an otherwise depressing day. Then came the year I couldn’t find anyone to go away with me.
I had asked everyone I knew if they wanted to go on a weekend getaway, and no one said yes. I felt miserable because not only was I single, but I also felt like I had no friends. I started praying about it, and perceived that God wanted me to stay home. That stung. I protested that decision with God. How dare He take away my joy during a day of hurt?! It made no sense. So, I tried again and again until I had to admit defeat.
Joanna Eccles has led Bible studies for over ten years and completed the year-long C. S. Lewis Fellows Program. She is passionate about discipleship and helping people know God better. Joanna enjoys coffee, traveling, and reading, and currently lives in Virginia.